John Prine often sang about going to heaven, and now, as he makes that final journey, some fans and friends – among them President Higgins – share their thoughts with Donal O’Keeffe.
I think the first time I heard a John Prine song might have been when Prine’s friend Philip Donnelly sang The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness in the Avondhu Bar in Fermoy many years ago, one night when the Clontarf Cowboy and Donovan had escaped from Brian O’Reilly’s Studio Fiona.
I later became a fan of John Prine through Ireland’s superb radio presenters, some of whom contributed to this tribute. I always marvel that Prine wrote Hello In There, a song of profound kindness and understanding, when he was only 22. He wrote with compassion and vision, and often with great wit, but he never gave in to sentimentality.
It’s telling that when Johnny Cash, a devout Christian, covered Prine’s towering Sam Stone, a song about a veteran of “the conflict overseas” reduced by his trauma to drug dependency, the Man in Black refused to sing the song’s most devastating line, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Prine didn’t hold it against him.
Prine told human epics, and in three or four minutes he wrapped them up in sweet songs for broken radios.
Thank you to all who agreed to share their thoughts on the passing of an American giant for this small tribute. I have little of worth to add to their insight, except to say that John Prine’s passing feels like yet another part of America’s innate decency has gone.
That Covid-19 took John Prine at what is nowadays the relatively young age of 73 is a loss for all of us, in these hard times when we need heroes and poets and jokers more than ever.
When I get to Heaven, the final song on John’s final album, says a lot.
“When I get to heaven,” he wrote, “I’m gonna shake God’s hand / Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand / Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band / Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?
“And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale / Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long / I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl / ’Cause this old man is goin’ to town.”
President Michael D Higgins
John Prine was the songwriter other songwriters looked to for inspiration. He was a voice of tolerance, inclusion, whimsy, and protest.
John’s songs are marked by a sensitivity and social conscience and capture the experience of those on the margins in societies, who have suffered broken dreams, broken homes, and broken hearts. His songs were profound and soulful, often sorrow-tinged, but ultimately affirming and wrapped in a distinctively mischievous humour.
John had a great love for the Irish landscape, especially the Burren and Flaggy Shore, as well as for the Irish people with whom he felt a great freedom. He was held in deep affection and warmth in particular in the village of Kinvara, where he had a home, and where his sessions in Greene’s were legendary.
Despite being one of Johnny Cash’s ‘big four’, he was marked by a great humility. He always used local musicians as support acts for his concerts in Ireland, and collaborated with renowned Irish musicians, such as Dolores Keane, Paul Brady, Declan O’Rourke, Arty McGlynn, and most particularly before his passing, ‘the Clontarf Cowboy’ Philip Donnelly.
Sabina and I offer our condolences to his wife Fiona Whelan, who shared his musical and life journey with him, and children Tommy and Jack and Jody all of whom as musicians keep his legacy alive, as well as his bandmates of twenty years guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques and those of his extended family and friends who mourn his passing.
Having been pulled out of the pubs of Donegal by him, I found myself walking towards John Prine on a stage in Oslo for our first soundcheck. I’d met John briefly down through the years but this was different. He wanted to sing with ME! I was nervous but John immediately put me at ease with his openness and his lack of ego.
John was the real deal. The songwriter who could write about the human condition in a song and absolutely nail it. John had a little table that was set up for each gig. On it were photographs of his family. These were on stage for each and every show. That was John, the family man. That little table said to me all I ever needed to know about John Prine. When you saw him with his wife Fiona it was the most genuine love you could see. You could feel the spark of their love in the air before they even entered a room.
John and Fiona Prine will forever have my gratitude for believing in me and my music, and for the times I could drink up some of that John Prine magic. May his nine-mile long cigarette never be extinguished. Rest easy John x.
“The world should know about Tanya McCole. I love her voice. She is authentic in every way – and a great road buddy too. Go Tanya, go!” – John Prine. tanyamccole.com
Great songwriters are usually great listeners. John Prine was both. An understated gentleman who held his fire until his aim was true. He was always bang on the mark.
For the most part, John flew under the radar of publicity. I had never heard of him until my Canadian brother-in-law, Kevin Delaney, sent me a home-made compilation cassette in 1978.
In there, amongst the dusty blues and gospel recordings was John’s raspy delivery of ‘Sam Stone’, a song of great beauty set in the grime of hopelessness and addiction. On the other side of the cassette was ‘Hello in There’, a glimpse into the reality of old age delivered with compassion so beautiful that it brought a sting to my eye. It was love at first hearing.
Those two songs, written when John was a mere youngster, were just the topsoil of a very deep and fertile talent fed by a rich wit and warmed by a generous heart. Like so many of my generation, John got me through many hard times and late nights. The sadness may dissipate, but the love can only deepen.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but in this case, John did not disappoint. He was a quiet thoughtful man, until he mumbled some perfectly weighted observation that brought the room to howls of laughter.
Although eclipsed by giants like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, the fact that he was held in a special place by Irish music lovers, is a testament, not only to John, but to the high standard of musical appreciation in this country. We certainly know how to pick ’em … and John was a winner.
John Creedon presents and produces The John Creedon Show, 8pm Monday to Friday, on RTÉ Radio 1.
John Prine’s talent in weaving an intricate simplicity into every single song was masterful. At the same time, he carved a sense of expectation into every single phrase either with his word choice, melody twist or delivery. He sometimes even ‘stayed a little too long’ on vowels in such a terrifically clever way, as if playing with your expectation even more. His ability to make sadness sound so beautiful and his skilful crafting of such a unique humour are inspirational to me. I am very grateful for the gift of his beautiful music to the planet and I’m terribly saddened to hear of his passing. My sincere sympathies to his family, friends and fans.
Julie Feeney is a songwriter, singer and composer. After taking time out on pressing matters, she will be releasing new material in 2021. juliefeeney.com
As a songwriter John is among the very best. Wise, funny, heart-breaking and breathtakingly accurate in the way he could express what he observed in the human condition. He was also a beautiful person. It’s people like John Prine who make America great.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. He presents Mystery Train, 7pm Sunday to Thursday, on RTÉ Lyric FM.
Ah John Prine, that face, that voice, the stories in his songs. I believe that he was one of the greatest songwriters of our time. His songs covered the full spectrum of human existence and played our hearts’ yearnings back to us! All done with his humble midwestern charm. So, so many artists have covered his beautiful songs. If I had to choose one right now, it would be Angel from Montgomery! One of the positives of this isolating is that you can take time to sit back and listen to this wonderful understated genius play his guitar and sing!
Angeline Ball is an actor and singer/songwriter. Her single Holding On is available here.
I always saw John Prine as a sort of Mark Twain figure. A humourist but mainly a humanist. He could make you laugh one moment and rip your heart open in the next. I got to perform with him on a few occasions and it was always an honour just to be around him.
Ron Sexsmith is a Canadian singer-songwriter. His new album Hermitage is available on digital April 17. Vinyl and CDs in June. www.ronsexsmith.com
Over the years I met John Prine at a few gigs and festivals. I never knew him personally but I knew his songs and this week I dusted down some old well-worn vinyl records, Diamonds in the Rough, Aimless Love and my favourite Pink Cadillac with that incredible song Cold War and of course Roland Salley’s powerhouse, Killing the Blues.
John’s song writing was a real inspiration. He painted pictures of real life, his lyrics were evocative, emotional and gifted and when he sang you just sat in because you were an invited guest. We last met and played at a Maura O’Connell gig in Ennis about ten years ago. That night I got to sit with him, chat and play a couple of songs on stage. That was such a treat.
My thoughts are with his family and to my sweet friend Maura who lost one of her best mates. These are tough times. Thank you, John Prine.
Mike Hanrahan is a member of Stockton’s Wing. His book, Beautiful Affair, and his music, can be found at mikehanrahan.com.
I first heard one of John Prine’s songs “Speed of the sound of loneliness” from the singing of Ian Campbell (RIP) when I was a young teen serving beer after hours in a legendary pub in Camden called the Stags Head also was lucky to have heard him in a pub in Kinvara once.
John Prine crafted songs with a beautiful simplicity that called to your soul. He soothed wounds, and sometimes opened them, I think he was a human of boundless empathy. I think his music appealed to me because I felt like he “got” me and that has been a great comfort going through life’s trials.
And to write something that seems simple is not an easy thing to do, maybe simple wasn’t the right word. What strikes me though is his music touched everybody of all ages so he must have had that gift.
Katie Theasby’s debut album, I Remember You Singing, is available at katietheasby.com
Fiachna Ó Braonáin
John Prine’s economy of words married to his empathetic sense of detail could make you laugh one minute … and cry the next … he was quite simply a cornerstone in the great wall of song.
Fiachna Ó Braonáin has been a member of Hothouse Flowers since 1985. He hosts Late Date, 11pm Friday and Saturday, on RTÉ Radio 1. hothouseflowers.com
John Prine was a gentleman, and a gentle man.
We met him a number of times when Loudest Whisper was touring with Philip Donnelly, and he regaled my brother Paud with yarns about his time as a mailman in Chicago. He loved our band, and we were knocked out by him.
He was a very nice, very down-to-Earth guy, and what a songwriter and performer he was. He and Philip were great old pals.
It’s very sad that we lost poor Philip last year, and now we’ve lost John Prine too.
Brian O’Reilly and his brother Paud have been the cornerstones of Loudest Whisper since 1968. loudestwhisper.com
If truth be told, country music has never really appealed to me. Of all the genres I immerse myself in, it has been a contentious one in my musical songbook. However, that changed when I first heard John Prine’s songs. I remember Cork legend and songwriter Hank Wedel calling up for a cuppa to my dive of a student house and playing All the Best.
My aversion to country music dissipated then and there, and I was transfixed by the lyrics and their ability to make me laugh and cry simultaneously.
The next time Hank called up, I had learnt Long Monday and played it for him. “We made love, in every way love can be made. We made time look like time, could never fade…” Is there a better line in music? I don’t think so.
We later went to see John Prine playing the Cork Opera House in 2017. I got in by the skin of my teeth, calling on old friends and favours to get me into the sold-out show. It was the first and only time I got to see him, and I am forever grateful.
John’s band, bar his lead guitarist, were stuck in Paris. Honestly, I was happy to hear this, although his band may not have been so pleased. It allowed me to focus on him, THE John Prine, and some of the most evocative, heartfelt, powerful lyrics to ever grace our ears.
John Prine opened hearts and minds, and changed my musical landscapes and horizons. I hope he is enjoyed his nine-mile-long cigarettes, vodkas, and ginger ales. Beidh sé ag ceol go deo.
Clare Sands is a Cork-based musician, composer, and songwriter, currently working on her debut instrumental in Connemara. claresands.com
I was introduced to the music of John Prine by my wife-to-be, Anne-Marie, back in the 1990s. I wouldn’t have had much time for what I thought of as “country” music at the time, but there was something about Prine that cut through.
The humour certainly appealed, as did his quirkiness, but I think it was mainly the sharpness of his observations, his empathy for people of wildly varying conditions, and his ability to tell a tale that marked him out.
Take, for instance, a line in Sam Stone, his song about a drug-addicted Vietnam vet – “there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” – a single line that reveals so much of the situation.
Or the hapless characters in Dear Abby, whose plight raises a laugh, but with so much warmth and understanding from Prine as well.
Or that heart-rending song about loneliness, particularly for older people, Hello In There – a song for these times if ever there was one.
It was only later that I realised that songwriters I adored – Springsteen and Dylan in particular – felt the same way about Prine, proving, if any other proof was needed, that he was the real deal.
David McCullagh is a journalist and historian. He co-presents Prime Time on RTÉ 1, and This Week on RTÉ Radio 1.
Hearing a John Prine song is like reading a novel or watching a feature film in under four minutes. All of his songs have the scope of cinema and the full spectrum of humanity rolled into the simple narrative of a country song.
There were no bells and whistles in the production of his songs, and there were none in his live performances either, and apparently the man himself was a straight shooter too.
His stories stand up, dance, and swagger all by themselves and yet somehow manage to do so with grace and humour.
There’s no doubt his legacy will also stand the test of time.
Ultan Conlon’s fourth album, There’s a Waltz, is available at ultanconlon.com
It’s safe to say John Prine has a place in the collective Irish heart. His wry sense of humour and divilish wit struck an immediate chord with our sensibility. Added to that his no-frills, earthy take on romance, the songs that grew from bar rooms and hard knocks, from journeying, arrivals and departures, all gossamer tinged with hope and the perfect imperfection of how things roll. His music is full of love, and life, and loss, and laughter. The whole spectrum of our humanity. The very best of us.
Ruth Smith presents Simply Folk, 10pm Sunday, RTÉ Radio 1.
It’s safe to say that, in the 26 years of our Monday night residency at Charlie’s in Cork City, Ray Barron and I have played at least one John Prine song – if not more – every night. It’s also true to say that I’ve broken the ice in many a new venue worldwide with a John Prine song…
His songs always have a rare multidimensional appeal – Country pickers, Blueswailers, Bluegrass Folksters and Serious Songwriters and Soul Singers all met around the campfire of John Prine songs.
Hank Wedel is a Cork City-based singer-songwriter, active since the mid-1980s. His recorded work over the years is available on Bandcamp, Spotify and YouTube.
Ever since my Daddy played me Angel from Montgomery when I was 13, I was hooked on John Prine. When he passed, I felt a bit lost. As much as Joni Mitchell was my musical icon, Prine was always the oracle of great lyrics. I’ve always imagined him as a cross between an impish Archangel and a Midwestern Buddha – full of wisdom and craic in equal measure. His work reminds me of Steinbeck – the economy of his writing – not a word out of place.
Prine’s lyrics can make you howl in laughter or lament – sometimes in the same song. His wry wit – “convict movies make her horny” – and his turn of phrase – “you’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness” – and his ability to cut you dead with a line – “there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes – top anyone.
Gavin Glass said this week that Dylan and Neil Young never seemed like buddies but John Prine did. I concur. He’s a giant, but you could imagine having a few pints with him.
His humanity shines through. I recently recorded his tune, Hello In There for Hot Press. The song deals with looking out for the wise and the cherished senior members of our society – I played it last Christmas on my radio tour but it’s even more relevant now. I can’t believe Prine wrote it at 22. His empathy was astounding.
There’s a lot of hope in John Prine’s songs – we all need songs like his now. He will be missed.
Jack O’Rourke has been described by Hot Press as “one of the country’s most gifted songwriters”. His 2019 release, Ivory Towers, has been critically acclaimed, and he is currently writing his third album, a collection of piano-driven contemporary folk songs. jackorourkesongs.com